Investigators speculate that construction-related factors may have played a role in expediting the rapid spread of a fire in a high-storey Melbourne apartment complex.

An air conditioning malfunction is believed to be the cause behind a fire which tore through an apartment building in Melbourne’s Docklands district, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents and causing an estimated $5 million in damage.

Investigators from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MBF) said that the fire started when equipment belonging to a resident was improperly stored behind an air conditioning compressor unit on the balcony of their third floor apartment.

This caused the air conditioner system to overheat, and eventually spark a fire which spread through much of the building.


Some, such as George Haydock, general manager of air-conditioner company Pioneer International, remain skeptical that a modern HVAC system could be the cause of a building-wide conflagration.

“Could someone explain to me how this could happen, doesn’t the air-conditioning unit have safety controls,” said Haydock, who also indicated that he was interesting in seeing the conclusions of the final report.

The blaze spread vertically, extending from the third to the 21st storeys of the apartment complex and causing fire damage to the fifth unit of each affected floor. Balconies and external infrastructure also suffered extensive damage.

Installed sprinkler systems did prove successful in stymying the further spread of the fire within the building itself, although also caused water damage to a number of the apartments.

MBF controller Trevor Woodward said that the fire was unusual due to the speed with which it spread vertically through the building, and speculated that construction-related factors may have played a role.

“It’s very rare that we’ve had a fire like this that’s able to spread vertically so quickly and that will be part of the investigation as well,” said Woodward. “Was it construction or was it something else that allowed the fire to spread?”

According to Woodward determining the factors that expedited the rapid spread of the fire could affect building construction and design in future.

“Hopefully there’ll be lessons learnt to be put into place and into proposed buildings in the way they’re designed.”

Woodward also said that the building’s fire alarms would be part of further investigation, following complaints from residents that they failed to sound on a number of floors.